Maybe I missed something, but the first news report I read discussing the question of Iraqi casualties in Operation Desert Storm appeared in The Washington Post on February 18, the thirty-fourth day of the war. The figures it cited, unconfirmed, were 20,000 dead and 60,000 wounded up to that point. It added that “wounded soldiers were dying for lack of treatment amid conditions that recalled the American Civil War.” The story was on page seven.
As of this writing, the Persian Gulf war still lacks its Mathew Brady to record the acres of bodies incinerated in their bunkers or buried alive in the sand. But 80,000 losses by mid-February hardly seems unrealistic. After all, there has been no effort to minimize Iraqi military, as opposed to civilian, casualties. Quite the opposite. By the time the Iraqi army is forced out of Kuwait, said General Thomas Kelly on February 23, “there won’t be many of them left.”
Obviously a wartime enemy cannot be allowed to hold his own soldiers as hostages. War means killing soldiers, and concern for our own troops dictates that it be done efficiently. America has clearly decided the cost was worth the benefit. But the way we have shielded ourselves from the cost being imposed on Iraqi soldiers—human beings, after all, mostly draftees, with families—is unpleasant.
Like everything else about this war, the spread of callousness on the home front happened at lightning speed. This is partly due to what a Post editorial called “the Nintendo effect”: those tapes of exploding buildings that made bombing seem like a video game. It is partly because of the remarkably few American casualties. The other week I found myself saying, “When the war starts …,” meaning the ground war, at a lime when American bombs were undoubtedly killing thousands of Arabs a day. There’s a lot we still don’t know—partly of necessity and partly because our leaders have kept it from us. But there is also a blinding moral self-righteousness that keeps us from seeing what’s going on before our eyes,
A neat little example of this process concerns a device known as a “fuel-air explosive” (FAE). The FAE works, in essence, by filling a wide area with combustible gas, then lighting a match. A search through Nexis, the computerized news media database, reveals that the FAE entered public discussion as something the Iraqis might have. It was described as a terror weapon: an “exotic explosive” with “a devastating blast similar to a small nuclear explosion over an area several miles wide.” “Unlike Iraq’s arsenal of chemical and biological weapons,” reported The Los Angeles Times on October 5, “there is no ready defense against” the FAE—which, by the way, “the United States does not have in its arsenal.”
The FAE soon acquired the moniker “the poor man’s nuclear weapon.” The Reagan and Bush administrations stood accused of encouraging the transfer of technology for it, back when Iraq was our pal. An LA Times article on January 15, about potential casualties, said the allies were prepared for “massive burns” from “powerful Iraqi fuel-air explosives.” The New York Times reported on January 24, “Hussein might be planning to use an even more horrific weapon, never before employed in combat, known as the fuel air bomb, which spreads a circle of lire.”
A Boston Globe article on February 6 cited a U.S. War College study suggesting that Iraq might have used fuel-air weapons, and not chemical weapons, during the Iran-Iraq war—the implication being that there was little to choose between them. This article also said, “Some independent analysts believe that both the U.S. and Iraqi arsenals include” FAES—the first hint that the good guys might have this weapon—although “it is not clear whether Iraq or any other nation has succeeded in perfecting them.”
Clarity was not long in coming. The LA Times reported on February 7 that “the United States stockpiled exotic fuel-air weapons” in Saudi Arabia for use against Iraq. And what’s the big deal? Although some “experts call them ‘the poor man’s nuclear weapon …,’ others say the bombs pack about as much punch as conventional explosives.” The poor-mouthing continued in The Walt Street Journal on February 8, which reported that FAEs “are derided by U.S. military technologists, despite outside talk they could be ‘superbomb’ response to any Iraqi chemical attack.”
The notion that FAES are so horrible that they would be used only in response to a chemical attack lasted less than a week. The Washington Post on February 16: “U.S. warplanes have begun dropping … fuel-air explosives on Iraqi positions lo ‘experiment’ with their effectiveness in clearing mine fields or blasting away berms and clusters of trucks and armored vehicles.” The New York Times ran a diagram the same day titled, “How Fuel-Air Explosives Work,” implying that their only function and effect is to clear mine fields. The explosion creates pressure that sets off the mines, “clearing an area large enough for a helicopter to land,” the Times helpfully explained.
On February 17 the Post, having repeated that FAEs are “employed against mines and light equipment such as trucks,” added: “Their fireballs also suck away oxygen, which specialists pointed out could lead to asphyxiation of Iraqi troops hiding in bunkers.” An LA Times editorial the same day, discussing possible use of nuclear weapons, noted that they may “be no more inhumane than, say, fuel-air explosives, which kill by sucking every particle of oxygen from the air.”
But in general, the papers continued to play down the fact that FAEs, former terror weapon, actually kill people. The LA Times, on February 17 (same day as its frank editorial) reported that FAES “clear mine fields, pack down sand to ease movement of allied armored columns, and further terrorize and demoralize the lightly armed Iraqi infantry troops….” A USA Today chart February 19 explained that FAES create a “pressure wave that detonates mines, destroys buildings, aircraft.”
On February 23, the day the ground war started. The Washington Post reported about this weapon that at first we didn’t have, then would never use except against a chemical attack, then were using to clear mine fields and pack down sand: “All of the front-line Iraqi troops have been subjected to extensive bombardment, including many detonations of 10,000-pound BLV-82 bombs, containing fuel-air explosives.” But by then, who cared?
We’ve been kidding ourselves about Iraqi civilian casualties too. Polls show that most Americans believe that Saddam Hussein purposely set up those families who died in the mistaken bunker attack. He might have, but there’s no evidence. The belief sterns from a refusal to acknowledge the costs of war. Many more than 400 civilians will have died before the effects of Operation Desert Storm are over. Baghdad is a city of 4 million people without water, electricity, sewers. Medicines are scant. Doctors operate by candlelight. Remember those Kuwaiti babies reportedly ripped from their incubators and left to die by Iraqi soldiers? Well, there have probably been no operating incubators for several weeks in Baghdad.
The moral? Not necessarily that the war was a mistake, although I think it was. For the moment, as America revels in victory, let’s just leave it at this: don’t be so damned smug.